Well-made 'Maleficent' still a tired, familiar bedtime story

Walt Disney Pictures

By Karen Yuan, Daily Arts Writer
Published June 4, 2014

“Maleficent” is a fairytale. It may be a reinvention of the classic “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), but the bones of it are still the stuff of castles, magic and dramatic orchestral scores. There are things to expect in this type of story. What I mean is that “Maleficent,” directed by Robert Stromberg (from the world of production design; this is his directorial debut), is riddled with clichés, but that’s not exactly a bad thing.

Maleficent


B-
Walt Disney Pictures
Rave and Quality 16


The movie tells the story of Maleficent (Angelina Jolie, “The Tourist”) – how’d you guess? – from Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” and why she cursed the infant princess Aurora. Once an innocent girl with a pure heart, she was betrayed by King Stefan (Sharlto Copley, “Oldboy”) and becomes vengeful and cruel. The rest of the story is a tale of redemption, forgiveness, the meaning of good and evil, blah blah blah. “Maleficent” ’s plot is so predictable that the Mayans could have foreseen it. Luckily, the weight of this story doesn’t lie in its plot, but in its production.

It’s clean, unsubtle filmmaking that exactly fits its genre. A fairytale requires tradition, formality, and a poetic cohesiveness, which the film delivers. The first true love’s kiss in the movie, later proving to be false, is silhouetted and in shadow. The second true love’s kiss is a scene awash in bright lighting and sun because the love is real this time. Another contrast occurs between Maleficent’s reaction to betrayal and Aurora’s (Elle Fanning, “We Bought A Zoo”) – Maleficent immediately goes for vengeance while Aurora forgives. It’s tidy symmetry. Maleficent and Aurora are foils of the most primitive, basic sense – one in black, one in white; one representing the past, one the future. This sort of storytelling is exactly the type for children before bedtime, with clear messages and simple poetry.

Symmetry occurs again and again in “Maleficent.” A young, trusting Maleficent eagerly says, “Come out!” to Stefan, who is hidden in foliage. Years later, a young, trusting Aurora eagerly says, “Come out!” to Maleficent, who is hidden in foliage. Both are children smiling at the one who will or has unmade them. Stefan kneels to plead to Maleficent when she visits him in revenge, and Maleficent kneels before Stefan when he readies to kill her many scenes later. Both characters bitterly exclaim “True love doesn’t exist!” at different moments, and both characters’ faces are half-covered in darkness as they slowly descend into violence and hatred. Stefan’s face is most obvious about this – watch the lighting changing from the moment he decides to betray Maleficent to even after the deed is done.

The ending of “Maleficent” attempts to subvert the fairytale genre a la Disney’s last blockbuster “Frozen” (2013). I won’t spoil anything, but I will tell you that the subversion feels tired. Expected. Anti-climactic. Only there because it’s trendy and hip and another banner feverishly waving for House Feminism. Am I giving too much away? The thing is, despite a potentially refreshing trope inversion in the name of girl power, every female in “Maleficent” is still romantically attached to a guy. Their major character points revolve around romance. In the context of the rest of the film’s traditional, ye-olde-fairytale atmosphere, a new spin almost feels forced – and it doesn’t help that one of the side characters literally looks into the camera to clarify the twist.